Mary Shelley Kept Her Husband's Heart After His Death And Other Stories You Maybe Don't Know
One of the earliest masters of horror, Mary Shelley wasn't just dabbling in the dark when she wrote one of the most important and influential novels of all time. The mother of science-fiction knew what she was talking about when she laid the groundwork for goths everywhere by creating Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus at the age of 18. Her entire life was marred by tragedy, with even her happiest moments shadowed by a gloomy air of sadness. Her favorite place was a cemetery, which makes sense, because she was surrounded by death. She even kept her husband's heart wrapped in a love poem inside her desk. All you baby goths need to get on her level.
Her mother died when she was an infant
Shelley practically came out of the womb sad, and not just the normal "wailing baby" kind. Her mother, feminist author and philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, passed away less than a month after giving birth to her, leaving her anarchist father to raise her. Fortunately for him, Thoughts of the Education of Daughters was one of the books Wollstonecraft left behind, alongside 1792's seminal A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Author Sandra Gilbert explains that Shelley only came to know her mother through her work:
Especially because she never knew her mother … her principal mode of self-definition—certainly in the early years of her life with Shelley, when she was writing Frankenstein—was through reading. Endlessly studying her mother’s works and her father's, Mary Shelley may be said to have 'read' her family and to have been related to her reading, for books appear to have functioned as her surrogate parents, pages and words standing in for flesh and blood.
Mary Shelley lost her virginity in a graveyard
There are no better goth credentials than losing your virginity in a graveyard, and Mary Shelley (then Mary Godwin) almost certainly ticked that box. The young Godwin first met the love of her life, Percy Shelley, in between two stays in Scotland when she was 17 and he was 22. At the time, he was estranged from his wife, so he saw nothing wrong with accompanying Mary on long walks through the St. Pancras Churchyard where Godwin's mother was buried, one of her favorite places. On June 26, 1814, Shelley and Godwin declared their love for one another in a "sublime and rapturous moment," a phrase that can only be construed as the young author trading in her V-card surrounded by headstones, including her mother's.
Shelley had a series of miscarriages
One of the many horrible things that happened to Shelley throughout her life was the miscarriage of her first child. Still unmarried to Percy Shelley, the young Godwin became pregnant during the couple's travels, and in late 1814, she found herself ill while the man she loved stepped out with Claire Clairmont, Godwin's stepsister. The only person that Godwin had to confide in was Thomas Jefferson Hogg, a friend of Percy Shelley's. In early 1815, Godwin gave birth to a girl two months premature, which was a death sentence in the 19th century. She later wrote to Hogg:
My dearest Hogg my baby is dead—will you come to see me as soon as you can. I wish to see you—It was perfectly well when I went to bed—I awoke in the night to give it suck it appeared to be sleeping so quietly that I would not awake it. It was dead then, but we did not find that out till morning—from its appearance it evidently died of convulsions—Will you come—you are so calm a creature & Shelley is afraid of a fever from the milk—for I am no longer a mother now.
Throughout her life, Shelley became pregnant multiple times, but only one of her children, Percy Florence Shelley, survived to adulthood.
She was haunted by visions of her first unborn child
Losing a baby at such a young age dragged the young Godwin into a deep depression that was compounded by dreams of her child. Of the haunting visions, she wrote in her diary: "Nurse the baby, read. I awoke in the night to give it suck it appeared to be sleeping so quietly that I would not awake it." In the morning, she would "find [her] baby dead." She continued, "[I dreamed] that my little baby came to life again; that it had only been cold, and that we rubbed it before the fire, and it lived ... Awake and find no baby." Even her diaries read like gothic literature.
She wrote Frankenstein during a dreary summer
The most famous story about Mary Shelley concerns the writing of Frankenstein. She spent the summer of 1816 with Percy Shelley, Claire Clairmont, and Lord Byron at Lake Geneva in Switzerland, but what should have been an idyllic summer was marred by a near-constant rain that kept the friends and lovers inside for days. One day, while sitting around the fire, Lord Byron suggested that they all write a ghost story. Mary initially had writer's block, but after a discussion of the nature of life, she had an idea about a reanimated corpse that gave her brain wave. She'd always been fascinated by the idea of reanimation, as one might expect from a child who lost a parent and grew up watching traveling science shows in which electricity was used to make dead animals appear to move. Finally, a "waking dream" spelled the story out for her. She wrote:
I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour [sic] to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.
Nearly a year later, she finished the manuscript for Frankenstein, which was published anonymously in January 1818. Thanks to the preface dedicating the book to William Godwin, Mary's father and Percy's hero, readers believed that Percy Shelley had written the book.
She kept Percy Shelley's heart in a drawer
Source: Lapham's Quarterly
As if Mary Shelley hadn't been through enough, on July 9, 1822, the love of her life drowned after his boat was caught in a storm. Percy Shelley's body, along with those of his two sailing companions, was found more than a week later, identified by the book of John Keats poems that he kept in one of his pockets. According to legend, his funeral was disrupted by a problem befitting the romantic hero he was imagined to be: When he was cremated, his heart refused to burn. Initially, Percy’s friend Leigh Hunt took possession of the heart, but he later handed it over to Mary. Rather than bury the organ with the rest of his remains, however, she kept it in her desk, wrapped in one of his final poems, "Adonais." Nobody knew it was there until after Mary passed away in 1851, which must have been a nasty surprise to the people who were just trying to clean out a deceased loved one's home. The heart was buried in the family vault with Percy Florence Shelley in 1889.
Death kept her company throughout her life
Almost everyone that Mary Shelley knew and loved passed away long before her, leaving her to fend off blackmailers and continue her writing with no one but her son at her side. Her half-sister, Fanny Imlay, committed suicide in 1816, and her husband drowned less than a decade later. Even Lord Byron passed away in 1824. In her loneliness, she referred to herself as "the last relic of a beloved race, my companions extinct before me." On February 1, 1851, Shelley passed away from a brain tumor and was buried in St Peter's Church in Bournemouth. With so much of her life spent in cemeteries, she must have finally felt at home.
Tags: 1800s | biography | death | literature
Like it? Share with your friends!